let someone else worry about the categories

Thoughts on memoir, genre, and T Kira Madden’s beautiful Long Live The Tribe of Fatherless Girls.

“I am trying to deprogram myself from separating genres and skill sets into boxes. I think genre is of service to publishers and booksellers and certain realms of organization, but it’s of little use to artists.”—T Kira Madden, in an interview with Ellen O'Connell Whittet at Ploughshares

I’ve been sick this week but instead of being all bummed about it, I used it as an excuse to take it easy and catch up on reading.

I shot through T Kira Madden’s extraordinary memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls in less than 24 hours. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone who aspires to tell stories, regardless of whether they’re working in fiction or nonfiction, long- or short-form, books or some other medium.

“It’s so well-paced!” I thought to myself many times. Pacing is challenging enough when you’re writing fiction and you can bend time and space at will, but to be able to keep readers turning pages on a life actually lived?

Well, that seems to me actual magic (AKA evidence of incredible hard work and skill) and so I wasn’t surprised to learn Madden is also an amateur magician. Good writers and magicians alike “make it look easy,” but do you know how much work it took to make things flow like that?

I was first introduced to Madden’s writing in her essay arguing that memoir is not catharsis. I was struck both by the style and the thoughtfulness of the essay, and so her memoir has been sitting on my shelf waiting patiently for my time and attention.

Sometimes it takes getting sick for me to do the things I most want to do.

I’ve written before about how the categories of “fiction” and “nonfiction” are imprecise, arbitrary—and it’s a subject I’ll no doubt return to again and again. I agree with Madden: genres and categories are words for publishers, bookstores, libraries. Words for organizing and selling.

Don’t get me wrong—if you want to successfully publish your work, at some point you wanna think about your category and audience. But you should not get so hung up in defining your work using industry terms that you cheat yourself out of borrowing from other genres, forms of art, and modes of storytelling.

“In every class I teach, we read across genres,” explains Madden. “We dissect the structure of a poem and use it as a story model; we look at classic tragic and comic form and shape an essay around it. The writer’s toolbox is for everyone, because we all have the same job: to make the art and to make it true.”

It’s taken me a long time to understand all the tools at my disposal.

A lot of my early-stage book development work with clients boils down to looking at other books for structural and formal inspiration. (It’s why trips to the bookstore aren’t just fun for me—they’re an important part of my job.) I definitely use improv forms to help me structure essays and scenes. And I can’t imagine crafting the climax of a book without drafting it to music that builds builds builds just the way I want my story to…

Question for the week: How do other genres, forms, or styles inspire you?